Chile: In Wake of Osorno Health Crisis, Water Giant SUEZ Summoned on Basis of Duty of Vigilance Law

Paris, Santiago de Chile, 7 June 2021 — Four organisations summoned today, before the Court of Nanterre (France), the world’s largest private water provider, SUEZ, in application of France’s law on the duty of vigilance. In July 2019, the inhabitants of Osorno, Chile, where the multinational has a water supply market share greater than 43%, were deprived of water for 10 days and a health warning was issued due to contamination of the drinking water supply following a further operational incident at ESSAL, controlled by SUEZ. This followed ongoing malfunctions, instances of negligence, and failures, which had been repeatedly signaled by the Chilean inspection bodies, who had previously referred to an “increased risk” arising from these operational irregularities.

Our four organisations had served formal notice to SUEZ in July 2020, demanding that it comply with France’s Law on Corporate Duty of Vigilance of 27 March 2017 by amending its vigilance plan in order to take the necessary measures to prevent another health emergency arising in Osorno or any other municipality in Chile. Faced with the company’s inaction, our organisations decided to bring our demands before the courts, which could order the company to put in place corrective and preventive measures.

"After trying unsuccessfully to obtain significant commitments from SUEZ to prevent the recurrence of such health crises, we are now asking the Court to order Suez to respond to our demands.”

José Aylwin of Observatorio Ciudadano.

On 10 July 2019, 2,000 liters of oil were leaked at the Caipulli drinking water treatment plant operated by the SUEZ subsidiary in Osorno. The plant’s water source was contaminated with hydrocarbons, thereby affecting the entire water supply for 49,000 households, equivalent to 140,500 inhabitants (97.9% of the city’s population). The contamination also reached two waterways – the Rahue and Damas rivers.

The water supply was cut off for more than 10 days, during which time the inhabitants of Osorno as well as establishments providing essential services to the city, such as hospitals, health centers, dialysis service and seniors’ residential care homes, were deprived of their drinking water supply, prompting a major health crisis. On 12 July 2019, a health emergency was officially declared. No epidemiological study was conducted to assess the number of victims.

The health crisis was exacerbated by ESSAL’s delayed and incomplete installation of alternative water supply points that provided water of insufficient quantity and poor quality. Water supply services were not fully restored until 21 July 2019, and the health emergency lasted for over six weeks, until 31 August.

"The citizens of Osorno have the right to a regular service of quality drinking water, like every human being,” said Ricardo Becerra, of local association Red Ambiental Ciudadana de Osorno. “What’s more, they have the right to full redress for the damage caused to their health and the ecosystem. Given the repeated failures of ESSAL, we appeal to the parent company, SUEZ, to take the necessary measures.”

Ricardo Becerra of Red Ambiental Ciudadana de Osorno.

These grave human rights abuses are due fundamentally to ESSAL’s lack of preventive and remedial measures, even though, since 2018, the Superintendencia de Servicios Sanitarios (SISS), the public body responsible for inspecting this type of service in Chile, has raised the alarm over the many infrastructure irregularities, deeming them to be a “high risk.” It has also imposed 360 fines on the company over the past five years.

"The new SUEZ vigilance plan published in April 2021 does not meet the obligations implied by the duty of vigilance that are imposed on the company. SUEZ must publish a new vigilance plan including effective measures, identified in consultation with local communities and stakeholders, to prevent new health crises in Chile from occurring due to the negligent behaviour of its subsidiaries. It is particularly important because SUEZ controls more than 43% of the water market in Chile and incidents are still frequent and insufficiently prevented.”

Maddalena Neglia, director of FIDH's globalisation and human rights desk.

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